On Saturday, Oct. 20 and Sunday, Oct. 21, audience members at Unison Arts Center asked “how” and “why.”
The Mohonk Mountain Stage Readers performed “The How and Why,” Sarah Treem’s new two-woman play, which explores science, family and women’s rights in a conversation that spans generations.
Christine Crawfis, executive director of Unison Arts Center, directed the production and played Zelda, an evolutionary biologist whose scientific theory has been her life’s work, garnering her recognition over the years. She is faced with a dilemma when a younger scientist, Rachel, played by Janet Nurre, challenges her theory.
“This play is about these women’s struggle to defend their points of view about why the female anatomy evolved the way it did,” Crawfis said. “It’s timely in reference to what’s going on in the political scene right now in terms of women’s rights. The play also talks about the challenge of women working in the male-dominated field of science.”
Encountering each other for the first time since Zelda gave Rachel up at birth, the women share their evolutionary hypotheses — one refuting the other — and attempt to mend their relationship at the same time.
Zelda’s entire life’s work has been dedicated to formulating “The Grandmother Theory,” which states that women tend to live longer than men because they were meant to help rear children once they are beyond their child-bearing years. She encounters a challenge which could permanently determine her relationship with her daughter.
Playing Zelda was easy for Crawfis because she and Nurre have an age difference similar to their characters. Crawfis said she understands Zelda because she can relate to the hypothesis she defends in the production.
Rachel, Zelda’s biological daughter, is a graduate student at New York University studying evolutionary biology. She has developed a new, controversial theory that disproves “The Grandmother Theory,” and if proven accurate, would invalidate Zelda’s entire career.
“My character is very passionate about her field,” Nurre said. “The play explores what her theory means to her, what science means to both women, the generational gap between both women in the same field and how their relationship changes through science.”
Because the play is being performed as a rehearsed staged reading, the production requires minimal costume and set requirements, stripping the contents down to two stools, two music stands and two scripts. Not relying on costumes or a constructed set makes getting into character even more difficult, Nurre said.
“When you’re doing a staged production, you put on your costume and know that you’re the character,” Nurre said. “Without, that, it’s a challenge to get into character. But because Reader’s Theater doesn’t memorize their lines, it combines the theatrical experience with the joy of being read to, which is something that as adults, we don’t experience. Staged readings are something different but still highly-skilled.”
Nurre said this production is accessible despite including technical terms and topics that may go over the audience’s head.
“I want the audience not to walk away thinking this is a play about women being women together, but that this is a play about human beings,” Nurre said. “Just because this play is about two scientist women, this is not a feminist play and that’s what it’s about, it’s about people who happen to be women.”